What Does it Mean to be Psychologically Flexible in the Face of the Pandemic?

Many experts argue that psychological flexibility is the ‘super skill’ of resilience and mental health. Research has found that it is associated with improved quality of life and both mental and physical well-being (Bond et.al, 2013; Gloster, Meyer & Lieb, 2017). In fact, very recent research has linked components of psychological flexibility to the level of distress that individuals are experiencing during the current Covid-19 pandemic (Kroska et al, 2020, McKracken et al, 2021).  

Psychological flexibility has been defined in numerous ways. Some researchers have stated that it is “the ability to pursue valued life aims despite the presence of pain” (Doorley, et al., 2020). Being psychologically flexible is a key goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which emphasizes the ability to stay in the moment, maintain awareness of thoughts and feelings, and pursue goals that are consistent with our values (Moran, 2015). Psychologically flexible people are skilled at recognizing when their approach to solving a problem or pursuing a goal needs to be changed, and they tend to avoid doing things a certain way just because that is the way it has always been done.  

With all of that in mind, what does it mean to be psychologically flexible in the face of living with Covid-19?  

  1. Acknowledging Your Feelings: Being psychologically flexible does not require being superhuman or acting as if the current circumstances are fine when they are not. We can’t pretend that our experiences this past year have been easy or pleasant. However, being psychologically flexible involves taking a step back from your thoughts and feelings and observing them from a bit of psychological distance. Take the time to notice the feelings that are arising, and it may help to label them (either silently to yourself or even out loud: “I’m feeling anxious” “I’m feeling frustrated” “I’m feeling sad”).  If you are struggling to separate yourself from strong feelings, rating them (on a simple 1 to 10 scale) can help to create some distance and objectivity. This practice of noticing and acknowledging your feelings contributes to psychological flexibility in that it helps you to not let your emotional reactions be in charge of your behaviors. Keeping some mental space between your emotions and your decision making allows you the flexibility of deciding how to handle difficult feelings when they arise.  
  2. Being in the Moment: It is very easy to get caught up during the pandemic with feelings of sadness related to looking backwards, and contemplating the loss of all of the aspects of our lives that have changed in the past year. It is also very easy to look too far ahead, and feel anxious and stressed about all of the unknowns and the possible negative outcomes that could still play out. The practice of being in the moment is an aspect of psychological flexibility that encourages us to anchor ourselves in the here and now, as opposed to reflecting on the past or anticipating the future. There are many ways to work on being in the moment, including looking around and noticing what your senses are telling you (e.g. something you can see, something you can hear, something you can smell, taste or feel) and fully focusing on whatever activity you are engaging in. Being in the moment can take some practice! If you find your mind wandering, that is ok. Just re-direct your thoughts to the present when you notice that has happened.  
  3. Focusing on Your Goals: One of the frustrations that many are experiencing during the pandemic is that the changes in our day-to-day lives have often meant that the ability to pursue our goals has been significantly derailed. At the very least, we have been forced to either re-define our goals or pursue them in new and often uncomfortable ways. One recent study found that “committed action,” or the ability to continue to pursue goals in the face of obstacles, was predictive of better adjustment to the stressors of the current pandemic (McCracken et al, 2021). Focusing on our values in order to determine which goals we want to pursue during this time, and then creating ways to work towards those goals within the confines of social distancing, can help us to continue to feel happier and healthier as we wait for spring to arrive. 

References and Further Reading

Doorley, J., Kashdan, T. B., Disabato, D., Goodman, F. R., & McKnight, P. (2020). Understanding psychological flexibility: A multi-method exploration of pursuing valued goals despite the presence of pain. Retrieved from osf.io/r7v6z (In press).

Gloster, A.T., Meyer, A.H. & Lieb, R. (2017). Psychological flexibility as a malleable public health target: Evidence from a representative sample. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 6,166-171.

Kroska, E., Roche, A.I., Adamowicz, J.L. & Stegall, M.S. (2020).  Psychological flexibility in the context of COVID-19 adversity: Associations with distress. Journal of Contextual Behavioral  Science, 18, 28–33.

McCracken, L.M., Badinlou, F., Buhrman, M & Brocki, K (2021).  The role of psychological flexibility in the context of COVID-19: Associations with depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Journal of Contextual Behavioral  Science, 19, 28–35.

Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26–31.

Kathleen McElhaney, Ph.D. 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist